Berkeley (Calif.): Sense of community dominates Christmas events

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Dec 26 16:15:22 UTC 2008

Sense of community dominates Christmas events
By Paul T. Rosynsky, Oakland Tribune
Posted: 12/25/2008 06:35:02 PM PST
Updated: 12/26/2008 06:44:46 AM PST

BERKELEY — Christmas Day usually means there is bupkis to do for
members of the Jewish faith — except maybe go to the movies and eat
Chinese food. But on Thursday, more than 200 people gathered for the
second annual Community-Wide Yiddish Culture Festival, where they
yented, noshed and schmoozed. In what is becoming an ever-popular
event for those of the Jewish faith throughout the East Bay,
Congregation Netivot Shalom opened its doors to anyone who wanted to
spend the day learning about their roots. There was dancing, music,
food and, of course, a crash course in Yiddish, the language that
originated in the Jewish community of Eastern Europe.

"Traditionally on Christmas Day, Jews go to get Chinese food and watch
a movie," said Robin Braverman, the creator of the festival. "We
thought instead that this would be a good day to preserve the Yiddish
culture." Once a dominant language among Eastern Europe's Jewish
community, Yiddish lost its popularity over the years as many
associated it with a community that was persecuted because of its
faith, said Gerry Tenney, president of KlezCalifornia, an organization
that promotes Yiddish culture and developed the program for the

When Israel became a country in 1948, the national language was Hebrew
and speaking Yiddish was illegal. People differed on why this policy
existed, but many say it was a result of Yiddish being linked to the
Holocaust and a language spoken only by European Jews. "It has been
fading for a long time now," Tenney said. "But there finally appears
to be resurgence." That prospect made many at Thursday's festival
kvell, or sigh with joy.

"Yiddish is a culture that Hitler almost wiped out," Braverman said.
"To learn Yiddish is really to get in touch with our culture as it
was." Joanna Brahman and her daughter Eva, 6, were doing just that as
they walked the halls checking in on the various workshops that
touched on everything from Yiddish films to Yiddish dancing. "Anything
that draws attention to Yiddish culture is valuable," Brahman said.
"This generation does not have the awareness that past generations

Besides, Brahman said, her family would probably just be sitting at
home or battling traffic on the way to Lake Tahoe if it wasn't for the
festival. More important, however, is the sense of community the
festival brings at a time when many among the Jewish faith feel
unconnected, said Judy Breakstone, a founding member of Congregation
Netivot Shalom. "This is usually a time when you feel left out of the
community," she said. "Just having a day of Jewish things to do on a
day when there is not a whole lot for Jews to do, it feels great. It
makes you feel like part of a community."

Pastor David Kiteley and members of the Shiloh Church in East Oakland
were also trying Thursday to bring a sense of community to a group
that usually feels left out of the Christmas spirit. More than 1,500
people lined up outside the church on School Street for the church's
free dinner and toy giveaway. At a time when the economy is in tatters
and jobs are being cut, the event could not have been more important
for those in the packed dinning room.

"It feels good to see a lot of people and be around everyone," said
Amelia Cota, 26, who attended with her son, Jesus Sota, 8. "This is
very important because they are doing something that we could not
afford." The boy stood next to his mother with a smile, having just
won a bicycle. Cota said she was pleased to be able to have a meal of
refried beans, rice, string beans and top sirloin. The church expected
a record crowd Thursday because of the down economy, Kiteley said.
More than 200 members helped out, donating more than $20,000 worth of
toys, clothes and food, he said.

By day's end, Kiteley said, the church will have given out hundreds of
toys and gone through more than 420 pounds of steak, 15 cases of beans
and more than 100 pounds of rice. "For many people, this is their only
Christmas," he said. "We want to teach people who have how to be
generous and teach those who don't how not to take advantage."

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